When thinking about Force India and their prospects in the sport, the term glass ceiling feels about as fitting as it ever could. A hugely successful 2016 saw them finish 4th in the Championship, by far their most successful outing, including points finishes in all but 3 races and two podiums for Sergio Perez. But where do they realistically go from here? Esteban Ocon, the team’s replacement for outgoing Nico Hulkenberg, has stated that they aim to beat one of the big three in 2017, but you have to feel that this is a long way off.
Last season Ferrari were third in the Constructors Championship, a full 225 points ahead of Force India, not only would it require a huge improvement from Vijay Mallaya’s team that is perhaps beyond their means, it would require one of the big three to seriously get things wrong to make up such a points deficit.
But you can’t help but admire the ambition and respect the progress that they have made, with their last three constructors finishes reading 6th, 5th and 4th, it seems only natural for them to aspire to capitalise on that. This of course has been helped by having one of the strongest driver pairings you are likely to see in a midfield team (McLaren are an obvious anomaly) with Sergio Perez and Nico Hulkenberg, the recipients of numerous plaudits during their time in F1 for their speed and race craft. The aforementioned loss of Hulkenberg though is set to dampen things slightly, as he makes his way over to rivals Renault to be replaced by Frenchman Esteban Ocon.
Ocon appears to be a talented driver, he secured a race seat midway through the last campaign with Manor after the funding issues that Rio Haryanto faced, and certainly at least matched his fellow Mercedes development driver Pascal Wehrlein in their time together. The reasons for his rather than Wehrlein’s promotion remain unclear though, with the Austrian revealing it perhaps had something to do with his personality rather than feedback or performance. Nonetheless, Ocon clearly did enough with his Manor drive and previous testing outings to convince Force India to sign him for 2017, and he can look forward to a far more enjoyable season than his time spent towards the back of the grid with Manor.
Ocon’s self-proclaimed fairy-tale might not be exactly that however, as he’s about to go head to head with one of the most reliable drivers on the grid. Sergio Perez’s performance since joining Force India after his setback at McLaren has impressed many, and has led to him being touted for a second bite of the cherry with a top team.
There are few better drivers at getting the most out of a set of tyres than the Mexican, allowing Perez to occasionally fight for podiums through strategy that on performance alone shouldn’t be achievable. Coming into Force India and against someone of Perez’s ability is a tough ask of Ocon, but will certainly provide Mercedes with some interesting information as to the standard of their potential future driver. Ocon will have to perform at a level above which he has before during his career, and his qualifying will need to improve hugely (he lost 7-2 to Wehrlein last year) if he isn’t to be blown away.
Back to Perez though and in much the same way as with the team, it’s hard to see how he can improve on what he achieved last year. Presuming that the top 3 teams also take the top 6 driver standings, 7th and the best of the rest is Perez’s likely finish.
This is exactly what he achieved in 2016, and although it would be a fine return, he must know that beating a relative rookie in Ocon rather than someone of Hulkenberg’s capability will not hold the same weight as he flutters his eyelashes at the big teams. Perez announced his surprise at Hulkenberg’s switch to Renault, but this tells you a lot about the character of both. Whereas Hulkenberg has taken a risk in joining a team who could finish towards the back of the grid, there is also the possibility now as a works team, that Renault could eventually even push the top three in the coming years. Perez however has played it safe, stayed with an indie team who seemingly can only move backwards, or at best hold off those around them and consolidate 4th, but it’s hard to see how his desire for a big move can materialise from such an approach.